Our apologies for site interruption. We are at Tampa Bay Downs covering Tampa Derby Preview Day. Will report on it Monday. Thanks once again for your patience and understanding.

Today's Feature Race is the Tampa Bay Stakes taking Coco Mon (8-1) to win at 5-1 or greater, exacta box with Kasaqui (3-1).

As the first meaningful prep day of the Kentucky Derby season, the races provided a decidedly mixed bag of results.

In Aqueduct’s Withers Stakes, El Areeb’s star status was confirmed in a completely comprehensive victory. Alas, one can't say the same for Santa Anita’s Robert B. Lewis, but Gulfstream Park's Holy Bull Stakes sent two messages; one positive, one mystifying.

What it all means, especially including the return of the 2016 juvenile champion Classic Empire, will probably require a little more time to provide conclusive Derby perspective.
Out West, the lesser known stablemate of Sham winner Gormley, Royal Mo, both trained by John Shirreffs, entered the ranks of Derby prospects with a comprehensive victory beneath Victor Espinoza in the Lewis.

The mitigating aspect, however, is that yesterday’s renewal was quite possibly the least inspiring edition ever staged. ‘Mo’ beat four rivals, three from one barn, and like the first two races we viewed on the Santa Anita card, it was won by speed type racing closest to the rail.

From his pole position, Royal Mo was sent along for the lead, set moderate splits, and never was seriously threatened at any time in the straight. The time for the 1-1/16 miles was a very solid 1:43.48 and was a worthy effort for a colt that hadn’t run since November.

It appears at this time that Gormley is targeting the San Felipe while Royal Mo may be headed to Hot Springs. The Rebel, with its obscene purse of $900,000, is a tempting target indeed, a good way to handle those separation blues.

Back East, El Areeb won his third straight by stalking from perfect position third, close up and in the clear throughout, before making his move to the lead at headstretch, leaving the overmatched group in his wake. When added to his three straight prior wins, the combined margin over those victories is a heady 29 lengths.

As Trevor McCarthy, who also happened to ride Irish War Cry to win his first victories prior to Saturday’s Holy Bull, said, the most impressive aspect of the win is that the speedster turned off, amenable to the rating tactics employed.

Nit picking, the horse he defeated for second stumbled badly at the start, was rushed to command on the first turn, and still had no serious challenger for place until the final two jumps.

Still, runnerup True Timber deserves some credit for hanging in there and show-finishing J Boys Echo was good also, racing four wide all the way around and still had punch at the finish, narrowing the place gap. But El Areeb? He was gone; a very nice colt is he.

With Mo Town expected to make his three-year-old debut, among others, in the Gotham Stakes, and with trainer Brian Lynch not wanting four preps into a possible Derby start, El Areeb is likely to skip the Gotham in favor of the 9-furlong Wood Memorial, April 8.

While McCarthy's away,
Rosario will play...

With Joel Rosario subbing for McCarthy, Irish War Cry dominated the G2 Hold Bull from flag-fall to finish by 3-3/4 lengths over strong finishing Gunnevera. Juvenile champion Classic Empire, finished five lengths farther back in third. For the champ, the race was lost well before post time.

When Classic Empire, who tends to get a little warm pre-race, was warm the first time he passed us in the walking ring. On his second pass, he began to develop a little kidney sweat.

By the time he approached the starting gate, he was completely lathered up and balked before being loaded. “Yesterday was the first time he ever had to ship and run in the same day," said Mark Casse from his Palm Meadows base Sunday morning.

“He’s shipped all the time and never fretted before... I don’t know what was going on with him. Yesterday was also the first time I ever saw him balk about going into the gate.”

Even if he had been a happy horse, he might have found it extremely difficult to defeat Irish War Cry, a very talented three-year-old who extended his undefeated career to 3-for-3. And in doing so. he checked every box, some inexperienced greenness notwithstanding.

He came from the clouds on debut to break his maiden going away by open lengths. Stretching out for an overnight stakes at Laurel second time out, he was so sharp, said trainer Graham Motion, that he broke running, set a pressured pace and still gamely prevailed in a stretch-long duel. Saturday was Irish War Cry’s two-turn debut.

Doubtlessly aided by the late scratch of a fast and talented Fact Finding, Motion wasn’t surprised that his horse made the lead and was allowed to get away soft in 24.14 and 47.92, leaving the competition with a lot to do.

Runners-up get a birds-eye view...

Despite racing greenly into the stretch, Irish War Cry maintained his daylight margin and never was seriously threatened. Delta Jackpot winner Gunnevera finished very well in late stretch in a promising three-year-old debut. But the day belonged for Irish War Cry.

“He’s a really nice horse and I was obviously really high on him, but when you’re running against the juvenile champion, you have reservations,” Motion said post-race Saturday. “There’s nothing quite like being involved in these three-year-old races,” he added. “It’s a great atmosphere here today. It’s pretty exciting.”

As for the champion, he will live to fight another day. “He’s fine today,” Casse added, before saying he has not decided on what’s next. “I would say more than likely you won’t see him back at Gulfstream but wherever it is, it will be somewhere he will train a little bit there before he runs.

“Yesterday came as a complete surprise to us, but the battle is far from over.”

No plans have been made for Irish War Cry’s next start either. “I really haven’t gotten beyond this race, Motion said. “I don’t know if I want to run in every race [at Gulfstream] but we’ll figure it out.” Apparently, the horse came out of the race well and is giving Motion added confidence.

Motion tells Acacia Courtney
about Irish War Cry's trip...

“We’ll see how things go, said Motion Sunday morning. “I just feel like I’ve thrown a lot at this horse in a short period of time and that is the only reason that I have some reservations about both races. We’ll keep him in Florida because it makes sense. We’re not going to get too clever about it. I see no reason to go anywhere else.”

BETS ‘N PIECES: Favorable Outcome was very good winning his three-year-old debut, the 7-furlong G2 Swale Stakes, for Chad Brown, running down Three Rules in the shadow of the wire... “About three weeks ago I just started breezing him and he was much fitter than I thought,” explained ground, who said that Favorable Outcome had only five works prior to the Swale. “I figured let’s run him in here and if he wins that would be great knowing that he is not even a 100% fit and it should set up well for him and we can build on it. He ran terrific; he should get a lot out of it...” So will the runnerup. Three Rules chased the pace while rating three-wide throughout. He gained the lead into the stretch and appeared as if he’d make it to the wire first but Favorable Outcome was resolute, snatching victory away from the apparent winner... All that Three Rules lost Saturday was a horse race. The effort looked like a great building block for what comes next... Rymska unleashed a powerful turn of foot to take the G3 Sweetest Chant for three-year-old turf fillies in the final strides from the promising Compelled, giving Brown his second stakes on the day. Both fillies, certainly Rymska, are Grade 1 fillies in the making... Pretty City Dancer, making her season’s debut for the Casse barn was a very good second in the G2 Forward Gal. It looked as if she would get up then finished one-paced, as if in need of the race; another good race to build on... Tequilita was very good for Michael Matz in the upset beneath hot-riding Luis Saez. A scopey, good-looking filly, two turns appears well within her scope... On the heels of a $40-million handle day for the inaugural Pegasus program, Gulfstream Park handled $19.7 million on Saturday’s Holy Bull card, smashing last year’s prior record for that day of $17 million as it continues to defy all U.S. wagering trends.

Hallandale Beach, FL, February 5

Photos by Toni Pricci